CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—Heading out of the locker room down 17, Duke desperately needed a spark on offense in one of its most important games of the season. A shot at the ACC Coastal championship, a crucial win at the mouth of the gauntlet of its schedule and an opportunity to eliminate past demons were all on the line.
Instead, the Blue Devils opened the second half with the same pitfalls that completely derailed their first half.
Deon Jackson attempted his sixth rush of the game, but was sniffed out by the Cavaliers' Noah Taylor, who laid the junior Blue Devil out for a forced fumble that Virginia recovered, setting the table for a quick home team field goal. Although the play far from decided the game, it was a microcosm of Duke's offensive showing Saturday afternoon—a disjointed mess that could not back up a gassed Blue Devil defense.
Duke fell 48-14 to the Cavaliers at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday afternoon. Despite a strong defensive effort that made the most of difficult field positioning thanks to a litany of Blue Devils turnovers—five for the afternoon—and resounding stops from the Cavaliers' defense, Duke could not contain Virginia's Bryce Perkins once Virginia's offense got rolling, handing the Blue Devils their worst loss to the Cavaliers since 2006.
"I’ve got to give [the Cavaliers] a lot of credit, they had a good game defensively," Duke quarterback Quentin Harris said. "They did a good job getting coverage of us on passing downs and a good job of penetrating the line of scrimmage on run plays. They eliminated our run game a little bit and did a good job in getting pressure in passing downs.... [Turnovers] are definitely frustrating, you definitely don’t want to turn the ball over. But they happen and they’re part of the game."
Throughout the opening half, Duke's offense was completely anemic against Virginia's stifling defense. The Blue Devils settled for screens and short rushes for minimal effect through a majority of the opening 30 minutes, which the home team greeted with with a defensive brick wall.
The Blue Devils' first half play-calling was questionable at crucial junctures of play. Down 10 after just giving up a field goal set up by a Virginia interception at the Duke 21-yard line, the Blue Devils (4-3, 2-2 in the ACC) opted to try a fourth-and-inches attempt on its own 34 to give their offense a much-needed spark of life. The attempt, fresh off of four straight three-and-outs, failed spectacularly, earning no yardage and setting the Cavaliers up nicely in Duke territory again, leading to yet another Virginia touchdown.
The Blue Devils' ineffective offense was dominated by the Hoos in the second quarter, with three straight drives cut off early thanks to turnovers deep in Duke territory. Luckily for the Blue Devils, Duke's defense held strong enough to limit the bleeding stemming from offensive blunders, holding the Cavaliers (5-2, 3-1) for much of the contest.
"We just weren’t getting it done," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "I thought [Harris] got hurried himself. You have to give [the Cavaliers] some credit with their ability to rush the passer. I mean he was trying to throw the ball away on the one interception and he overthrew one to no one. That can happen sometimes, but don’t throw the ball away downfield. Throw the ball away just across the line of scrimmage. When I said it when he came off, he knew. It won’t be the last error he makes, I will have many more that I’m going to make, and we move forward."
Late in the third quarter, Duke finally put some points on the board thanks to a pair of trick plays to discombobulate Virginia's defense. On back-to-back fourth downs, the Blue Devils ran formations for punter Austin Parker to rush for a first down, punching it through each time to finally make it into Virginia territory—the first time of the half. Harris followed it up with a 36-yard rainbow to Scott Bracey for the Blue Devils' first score of the day, making the score 27-7. But just as Duke found a glimmer of hope, the Cavaliers' Joe Reed took the Blue Devils' kick back to the house for a 95-yard return, sealing Duke's fate Saturday afternoon.
With this loss, the Blue Devils' chances at a Coastal title have slimmed considerably. With Duke facing a date with North Carolina next Saturday, the Blue Devils will have to shake off the loss lest their Coastal chances fall away for good.
"This is a game that we knew the implications of it," Cutcliffe said. "It doesn’t define the Coastal division, but there’s implications in every Coastal division game period. Whether it was Pitt, whether it was Virginia Tech, you move forward. We’ll get over it. We’ve always had the ability to do that. We’ve got great young people, we’ve got great staff. That’s how you go about getting it done."
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